Friday, December 19, 2008

Ehud Olmert and Rod Blagojevich

As I write, Governor Rod Blagojevich has been arrested but not yet indicted and although there is a loud chorus demanding that he resign or be ousted, he remains in office. As I write, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been accused of serious crimes by the Israel police but he has not been indicted. He has completed three months as head of the Israeli government since he tendered his resignation in mid-September, with three months or more to go until his successor takes office. Under Israeli law, Mr. Olmert stays on as Prime Minister. In Chelm, they had a more intelligent system of governance.

There are distinctions between the Blagojevich and Olmert situations. The Governor is a serial sleeze and a great fool, yet while he isn’t fit to be governor, it’s far from certain that key charges made by the publicity-hungry U.S. prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, will stick. Blagojevich’s wrongdoing bears a strong kinship to routine political transactions, such things as patronage and grants, although he may have crossed the line that separates the unethical from the criminal.

As for Mr. Olmert who is certainly shrewd and certainly entitled to his day in court, there is much evidence that ill-gotten pelf adhered to his fingers and that would be a big-time crime. Yet, he continues on, empowered to make life and death decisions for Israel.

What makes this more bizarre is that over the years, Israel’s usurpatious Supreme Court, aka the High Court of Justice, has interceded to block appointments to ministerial posts and even lower administrative positions on the dubious ground that the appointees are not ethically or otherwise qualified. By what ethical standard is Mr. Olmert fit to stay on?

The Israeli law regarding interim governments is seriously in need of reform, which puts it together with much else in Israeli law and society that begs for change. Six months is a long period for a caretaker government, especially since Israel is constantly beset by security and other major challenges. The arrangement is reckless. In this country, for nearly 150 years the Constitution provided that an outgoing president remains in office for four and a half months after the election. When the Great Depression hit, it was universally recognized that this was too long a period and the Twentieth Amendment was adopted, providing that the incoming president takes office on January 20 rather than on March 20. Even this shortened period is considered too long by many, especially this year in view of the economic crisis and urgent defense and diplomatic issues.

At the least, Mr. Olmert must be preoccupied with daunting personal legal issues and this preoccupation, as well as the possible impulse to better his prospects through daring action, may result in rash decisions. People do dangerous things when they are cornered and I doubt that prime ministers are exempt from this tendency.

This concern is not a fantasy arising from a dislike of Ehud Olmert. In an interview with Yediot Achronot given after his resignation, excerpts of which were published in the New York Review of Books (December 4), the Prime Minister deliberately undermined Israeli diplomacy through statements that went beyond what Israeli governments, including his own, had said publicly about Israeli peace negotiations and concessions.

Tellingly, the NYRB article is called “The Time Has Come to Say These Things.” Really, after you resign and when Israeli public opinion rates you lower than any sitting prime minister in the country’s history and as you are awaiting indictment? That’s the time to break new ground and to say things you did not dare to say previously?

In response to the question, “You must have done some soul-searching before your resignation?”, Mr. Olmert said, “I’d like to do some soul-searching on behalf of the nation of Israel.” Whether or not we agree with what he advocates, his caretaker status does not authorize him to offer public concessions. Negotiations with the Palestinians, Syrians, etc., must be left to the next government.

I believe that in his determination to salvage his reputation, Mr. Olmert has concluded that the peace gambit is his best option. This adds to the problematic nature of his lame-duck diplomacy. He says in the interview that Israel should “designate a final and exact borderline between us and the Palestinians so that the entire world, the United States, the UN, and Europe can say, ‘These are the borders of the State of Israel, we recognize them, and we will anchor them with formal resolutions in the main international bodies.’” What naïveté! How can he disregard what happened after withdrawal from Gaza? How can he disregard Hamas and Hezbolah? How can he believe that “formal resolutions in the major international bodies” will bring shalom al Yisrael?

Fortunately, he will be gone from the scene in three or four months. Let’s pray that Israel isn’t harmed in the interim. Let’s hope that the arrangement that allows him to stay on for so long will be altered. If our hopes and prayers do not do the job, likely we can count on the Palestinians to once more turn down a deal that should be too good to refuse.